Head First: Getting baked with a Chicago Foodie

Kate Bernot

Think Bennison’s is the only bakery around? Think again. On Saturday, I set off on a mission to find some of the sweetest baked treats in Chicago. Like any good detective, I set off alone with a set of tools: some cash, an unlimited CTA pass, broken-in sneakers, my notebook and Google Maps. I knew that a day pursuing pastries was guaranteed to be a good time, but I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about the behind-the-scenes bakers that make Chicago such a tasty place.

At 12:15 p.m., I emerged from the Belmont El stop and headed west, taking in the cool April sunshine and bobbing my head to the Matt and Kim playing through my headphones. I walked west on Wellington Avenue toward North Lincoln Avenue, past rows of front lawns pushing up their first tulips and daffodils. After 20 minutes, I arrived at Smash Cake Bakery, a hot-pink baking palace whose decor is almost as saccharine sweet as its food. As far as I could tell, Smash Cake’s brand new location wasn’t open to the public yet, but that day it hosted the Chicago Food Blogger Bake Sale. The concept was simple: recipe bloggers, caterers and bakers from Chicago coming together to sell their signature treats, with the proceeds benefiting Share Our Strength, an organization that fights child hunger in America. Other U.S. cities also participated, raising more than $16,500 in total.

Bake sales usually conjure memories of third-grade fundraisers, where sticky-fingered youngsters paw over the chocolate chip cookies you forgot to tell your mom she needed to bake until 10 p.m. the night before, at which point she flew into an exhausted, angry fit about the lack of baking powder in the house. Or maybe that was just my experience. Anyway, this bake sale was definitely not just for kids. Instead of hastily-baked cookies or store-bought brownies, shoppers could choose from beautifully packaged deep chocolate brownies marbled with chevre, oatmeal peanut butter coconut cookies, almond butter blondies or lemon curd cupcakes.

Since I’m a sucker for both baked goods and cute packaging, my head was spinning. I grabbed packages of the chevre brownies and some cranberry lime scones until I could barely hold any more. I figured my roommates would help me eat them, and everyone knows calories consumed for charitable causes definitely don’t count.

Even better than feasting on gourmet sweets was meeting the talented chefs behind them. Maris Callahan, the bubbly 20-something behind the recipe blog In Good Taste (ingoodtasteblog.net), coordinated the sale and was on hand all day pricing the treats, tying balloons and answering questions about her creations. I chatted with her about the sale, our blogs and my interest in all things sweet. I also had the chance to talk with the women behind Foiled Cupcakes and Kudos Kookies. I was impressed by how willing they were to indulge my questions about how they make their businesses work and where I could go with my own admittedly amateur food blog. Even in a world of blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn, it was an incredibly valuable experience to meet the women who had previously just been names on a screen to me.

Scones, brownies and business cards in hand, I set off from Smash Cake to the next leg of my culinary quest. I hopped on the No. 11 bus and headed to the grand opening of Splice Kitchen, a shared-use contract kitchen on North Lincoln that allows chefs to rent space and equipment in the professional kitchen and then sell their creations in the retail cafe. After chatting with owner Tonya Ojuluwayo, I grabbed some brisket sliders for the road and headed for Floriole, a new bakery on West Webster Avenue (see The Brow for a review). Exhausted and covered in powdered sugar on the El ride back to Evanston, I lamented the years I spent thinking 1835 Hinman’s hot cookie bar was the pinnacle of baking. My advice: get to a bakery downtown, strike up a conversation with the talented people behind the counter and never, ever forget to bring treats back for your roommates.